Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Danger of ‘Individual Discernment’

"Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."

(Second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 19, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 1: 29-34.)

For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of the Year 2014]

Just before Communion at weddings and funerals (and also at Masses on Christmas and Easter), I make the following announcement:

“At this time all practicing Catholics in good standing are invited to come forward if they wish to receive the Lord in Holy Communion.  To those who are not Catholic: We certainly welcome you here on this special occasion.  I cannot offer you Communion today, but I do invite you to come forward if you wish—to me or to one of the other priests or deacons at this Mass; come with your arms crossed over your chest in this fashion, and we will be happy to give you a blessing today in the Lord’s name.

‘That invitation also applies to Catholics, who know, for some reason, that they should not receive.”

In all honesty, my brothers and sisters, I hate having to say that.  I really do.  The reason that I, and many other priests, feel we need to give this instruction is, quite frankly, because during the last 50 years many of our brothers in the priesthood have failed to tell their people the truth and instruct them properly.  In their desire to be “nice guys,” these priests have told certain men and women that it was okay for them to receive the Eucharist when it was definitely NOT okay for them to do so.  Some of them have even gone so far as to invite UNBAPTIZED PERSONS to receive Communion at Catholic weddings and funerals!

Those of us who make the announcement do it because we want those attending Mass in our parishes to do the right thing.

And many appreciate the guidance.  I’ve actually had a number of non-Catholics come up to me after these Masses and say, “Fr. Ray, thank you for what you said; thank you for the instruction.  We’re never sure what to do in these situations, and no priest has ever given us any guidance on the matter in the past.”

Generally speaking, it’s been my experience that both Catholics and non-Catholics who are really serious about their faith appreciate this instruction, while Catholics who like to “pick and choose” which Church teachings they’re going to follow do not.

And every once in awhile one of those in the latter category will send me a letter or an email, expressing their disapproval.

Recently, for example, someone wrote the following to me in an email: “Fr. Ray, please reconsider your comments before Communion [at funerals].  Frankly, they are offensive.  Jesus would not have been so uncharitable or insensitive.”

When I responded to this person and indicated that what I say is rooted in the teaching of Sacred Scripture—especially St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, another man who received my response wrote back: “Obviously, for [Fr. Ray], it’s all about doctrine, not compassion and understanding. . . . It is also an element of ELITISM.  It couldn’t be further from what Jesus preached, and I’m sorry that St. Paul couldn’t see that (but after all St. Paul went through, I can cut him a break).”

I have the sneaking suspicion that St. Paul would not quite agree with the assertion that he had misinterpreted Jesus.  If Paul did misinterpret our Lord, by the way, then that means our God is schizophrenic!  We call the Bible “the word of God”—which means that the teaching of God in the Gospels cannot contradict the teaching of God in the rest of the New Testament!

But that’s not the reason I mention all this today.  The reason I mention this situation—and specifically these two letters—in the context of this homily, is because in each case the author claims to be able to discern infallibly the presence of Christ and his teaching!  The first man made that point when he said that “Jesus would not have been so uncharitable or insensitive” as I supposedly was; the second made the point when he said that my remarks “couldn’t be further from what Jesus preached.”

I get the sense that they think they understand the teaching of Jesus better than Jesus understood the teaching of Jesus!

John the Baptist was much more humble in his assessment of himself, as he indicates in today’s gospel reading from John 1.  Here was a man who rightly understood that his individual discernment was not infallible.  He admits very candidly that when he first encountered Jesus at the Jordan River, he did not realize that he was in the presence of the Messiah.  God had to make that fact clear to him.

And he did. 

As John says here, “I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

God always provides a mechanism to clarify these things for us, as he clarified things for John.  This, in fact, is why Jesus established a Church—and why he established his Church on the “rock” of Peter.  Our Lord knew how easy it would be for people—even good, sincere people—to misunderstand and misinterpret his words.  Our individual discernment is never infallible!  But the discernment of the successors of the apostles in union with the successor of Peter is infallible—when they speak together officially on matters of faith and morals.

The individual discernment of many Christians today—including the two men I mentioned earlier in my homily—has actually resulted in the creation of an imaginary (and false!) Jesus: a Jesus who is nice all the time; a Jesus who never offends anybody; a Jesus who ignores sin; a Jesus who pretty much approves of everything we do or say.

In looking to themselves as their final authority on matters of faith and morals, these Christians forget some important things.  They forget that the very same Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (and other nice things like that), also called the Pharisees “hypocrites,” “blind guides” and “whitewashed tombs.”  They forget that this very same Jesus once said, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!” and, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away!” and “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  They forget that this very same Jesus once made a whip of cords and drove a bunch of greedy money changers out of the Temple area, yelling, “My Father’s house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it into a den of thieves.”

And they call me “insensitive” and “uncompassionate” for giving people a few guidelines at Communion time?

I’m a pussycat compared to Jesus!

We all need discernment as we seek to follow Jesus in this life.  We all need, in other words, to be able to recognize the presence of Jesus and his teaching.  But if we want to follow the real Jesus—the Jesus John the Baptist and the apostles followed—then we need to seek the guidance of the Church that Jesus established.  This is why the most important book for any Catholic to own (besides the Bible) is the Catechism.

If we own a copy of the Catechism—and then consult it for spiritual guidance and for answers—God will guide us in our discernment of his will, as he guided John the Baptist in recognizing and following the Messiah.

We’ll understand what God wants us to believe; we’ll understand what he expects of us; we’ll understand the difference between right and wrong; we’ll understand how to get on—and how to stay on—the road to heaven.

And we’ll understand why Fr. Ray and other priests sometimes make the announcement that they make at Mass right before Communion.